Month: January 2014

How do we grade speedwrites and freewrites?

Here is another question from Sarah-Beth:

Q:  “I was also wondering how you score the Relaxed Writes? Is it a similar process? I’m not sure what to put the total out of (same with Timed Writes). The marks seem really inflated when I factor in the 40 to top them off and I’m getting over 100% on some students, which are totally skewing their marks. What do you suggest? Merci!”

A:  These are Blaine Ray’s ideas.  First, announce course goals.  For beginners, write 100 coherent words in 5 min; write a 500-word story in 3 verb tenses in 30 min (by end of course).  I use 2 kinds of writing during the year– speedwrites and timed writes.  I start writing after about 20 hours of CI.

A speedwrite is, the kids have 5 minutes to write.  They have to produce as many words as possible during that time.  Then they count their words.  The only “rules” I have are no lists, and focus.  I start grading these with a “handicap” system.  The freewrite is out of 100 and the kids’ scores are the # of words they write, plus the handicap.  First time out, the kids will typically write 20-60 words.  Add 40 to that, and you get a score of 60-100.  Next time, two weeks later, do the same thing…but add only 30.  By the 4th month (semester block system of 6.25 hrs/week) kids should be easily hammering out 100 words in 5 min.

The speedwrites will start out junky and then improve.  EG you’ll get “My am John.  I is tall and me likes girls and videos and my Dad name Mike.”

b) For “freewrites,” they have 1/2 hour to write on a given topic.  I usually use stories.  I’ll say something like “write a story that starts with there was a boy/girl named ____ and include at least one food/clothing item, animal, etc.”  I also tell them, include dialogue, describe characters (and their families etc etc) and include some kind of clear problem that has to be solved.   The kids will begin copying stories you’ve done in class, and as they get better, their stories will diverge from yours more and more.

For marking freewrites, I use the following rubric (from first freewrite right up to advanced students).  The only changes are, I would expect my beginners (after say 20-30 hours of CI) to write say 75-125 words, while end-of-year Level 2 kids should be able to do around 1,000.  In a CI class, the scores– for kids who are always there and who actively listen– shouldn’t be below the 6/9 mark and most will be higher.  I mark /12 if the writing includes graphics etc (e.g. I am doing a “visit Spain” culture project or suchlike).

Writing criteria.doc

How should I grade translations?

This question is from Sarah-Beth who teaches French to grade 7s and 8s.

Q: How do I grade translations?

First, principles.  Whatever you want students to read and decode should be

1) at LEAST 90% vocabulary they have either acquired, or frequently read.  Research shows that people can read independently only when they recognise 90% of what they read.  The other 10% is “noise” and/or vocab that will slowly be acquired.  Remember– our passive (recognition) vocab is always way larger than our active (production) vocab– so, if you have been doing lots of reading, your students shoul be able to understand a fair bit of things they can’t (yet) say.

2) in some kind of meaningful form– e.g. a story, a clear and obvious character describing him/herself, etc– not isolated sentences.

3) Latin teacher James Hosler has said that “for me, assessment is just another excuse for providing comprehensible input.”  I couldn’t agree more. 

I would suggest you give them a 150-200 word story.  This story should include vocab from the entire course, not just your most recent story.  Have them copy it (this is free reps!).  They write the translation underneath in a different-coloured pen.  Underneath that, they leave a blank line (this is to keep it legible).  Or, you could hand out a triple-spaced copy of the story, and they write the translation underneath.

Count the words in the original.  For every meaning-based mistake students make, they lose one point.  For every verb-tense (relatively trivial) mistake, take off 1 mark. 

So if the original is 200 words, and Johnny makes 3 meaning-based errors, and 4 verb-tense errors, his mark is 193/200 = 96.5%

Another idea (from Ben Slavic) is dictee-translation.  For this, dictate a short, ten-sentence story, or put a picture on your O/H and describe it.  The kids listen (NO ENGLISH!) and write.  When done, project the story/description onto O/H.  Have the kids fix their mistakes (this is good CI!).  Then, have them translate (in different-cloured pen) under what they have written in TL.  You assess (a) their corrections and (b) their translation. 

Most teachers find that translation results are amazing– kids really do “get” what we repeat in stories, PQA, etc, because we teach for mastery (acquisition) and don’t go on until the kids get what we are describing– and the translation marks should be pretty high.  If colleagues object– “what?  they’re all getting As on comprehension?  they CAN’T be THAT good?” you’ll be OK…because in TPRS, we teach for mastery, not “presentation” and we EXPECT our kids who attend and focus to understand everything.    

I also think that multiple choice questions to determine how much students understand are fine…but it will be a lot of work to make them, as the “three plausible distractors” rule is tough, and it’s surprsingly hard to come up with questions.  You could use something from a standardised program (e.g. Avancemos)…but then you have the problem of super content-specific questions and grammar which probably won’t line up with what you’ve done in stories and readings.

Why do TPRS teachers insist on choral responses?

If you have watched a TPRS/CI classroom, you notice the students saying “yes” or “no” or “ahhhh!”, or giving one-word answers, in response to teacher statements and questions.

Why do teachers want this?

A) Because a stong choral response indicates that most members of the class understood the statement or question. In TPRS, we want, above all, to make sure that people understand. A weak choral response can indicate that the students either don’t understand our question, or aren’t listening, in which case

B) Because it shows us that students are actively listening. People on phones, side-talking, fiddling with whatever…are not getting comprehensible input.

Choral responses, along with “eyes on teacher” and “nothing on desks” for students, keep kids “tuned in” to the teacher. The teacher, in turn, must go slowly, pause while pointing to what is on the board, and “teach to the eyes,” all to ensure that kids hear it and understand it.

Why did Blaine Ray develop TPRS?

I spoke with Blaine Ray in Oct 2013 in Portland and asked him some questions.

Ray began teaching Spanish in the late 1970s in Idaho. He was at a school where he was under pressure to increase enrolment in Spanish.  He failed, was fired, and found another job, from which he was also fired for not having enough enrolment and retention. 

After starting his third job– and by now married with three kids– Ray enrolled in U of O and started combing through library stacks, where he found James Asher’s Total Physical Response (TPR) in 1980. TPR involves the teacher saying a word in the target language and performing an action which represents the word, the action being repeated by students. They can also say the word while repeating the action.

TPR worked better than anything else Ray had tried. Students remembered MUCH more Spanish than before. However, Ray ran into problems. First, there was ambiguity. If a student learned that “se levanta” (gets up) went with the action of standing up, great. But what if you wanted to say “got up” or “will get up”? Do you modify the gestures, or add other gestures to indicate time? This gets confusing.

The second problem was, how to teach the various forms– I, you, she, he, we, they, you guys– using TPR. If “se levanta” goes with standing up, how do we indicate that I stand up? That we stand up?

At about this time Ray read Krashen’s Principles and Practices and decided to make his class 100% comprehensible, so he just wrote the meanings of words on the board. He had also always been interested in stories, so he began experimenting with narrating stories, asking questions about what was happening, and having student actors (and props, realia, etc) act out what was happening. All the while, Ray would ask the actors what they were doing.

In about 1990 Ray met Susan Gross, who developed the “circling” questioning technique. Circling boosted TPRS’ effectiveness because it allowed students to hear hundreds of repetitions of words. When circling, the teacher makes a statement using the “structure” being taught. Say, “wants to drive.” The teacher says the sentence. Then, questions– all of which use the words “wants to drive” are asked, and answered by the class chorally with sí/no or one-word answers. “Class, does Johnny want to drive? Yes, class, Johnny wants to…does Johnny want to drive a Ferrari? No, Johnny does not want…”

Ray’s comic bent led him to using bizarre, personalised details to “colour” his stories. Characters had 37 cats and 26 brothers, which were few…because their friends all had 99 brothers! This “weirdness” is funny, but has the profoundly important effect of getting students to laugh and pay attention, increasing acquisition.

Ray’s reading of Krashen, whose research showed that reading was essential to language acquisition, led him to look for interesting reading material for students. Finding none, he began writing simple novels for high-school students, such as “Pobre Ana,” about a girl’s exhange-student experience in Mexico.

With the development of good reading materials, Ray’s TPRS “basics” were done, and his students did well, many of them acing AP exams, and enjoying his classes.

The litmus test came in 1996 or so, at a conference for teachers put on by TPR developer James Asher. Asher invited Ray to demonstrate his method, and Ray brought two students. In front of two hundred teachers, Ray narated a story (in past tense), the students acted (and answered Ray’s questions in the present tense), and Ray asked the audience– the “class”– questions.

The audience enjoyed Ray’s presentation, and when he finished, a teacher said “looks great, but all they have to do is answer simple questions and listen. Can they actually speak on their own? Could one of them, for example, tell the story of Little Red Riding Hood in Spanish?”

Ray asked one of his student actors if she knew the story, and she said “yes, but not in Spanish.” Ray told her to go ahead, and she did, narrating the folktale using two past tenses for narration and the present tense for dialogue. Because she didn’t know the word for “wolf,” she used “el perro malo” (the mean dog), and in place of Little Red Riding Hood, she used “la chica roja” (the red girl).

When she finished, the audience clapped loudly and then the teacher who had requested the folktale said “that’s the best Spanish I’ve ever heard from an Advanced Placement [AP– fourth or fifth year] student.”

“I’m not in AP,” said the student, “I’m in second year.”

Ray began getting requests from various school boards for workshops explaining his methods. When Susan Gross told him “Blaine, you’re awesome, but you can’t really explain what you are doing,” he decided, along with publisher Contee Seely, to write a book, which Stephen Krashen edited, entitled “FLUENCY THROUGH TPR STORYTELLING” (now in its 6th edition). Ray told me that part of his initial impetus was to clarify for himself what he had taken years to develop, one experiment at a time.

In 2000, after missing twenty-four of the first forty-eight teaching days due to being away giving workshops, Ray retired, and began devoting himself full-time to teaching his method.

A relentless innovator, Ray started volunteer teaching Spanish one day a week at his local high school, mentoring the teachers there, all the while refining his craft with his bizarre stories. To this day, at age 62, Ray continues to innovate and volunteer teach every Monday, his latest “ah-ha!” discovery being Laurie Clarq’s “embedded reading” strategy.

Ray wanted real acquisition, not kids who could fill out worksheets and merely stutter through rehearsed dialogues, and he wanted himself and the kids to have FUN in class. Given TPRS’ positive research results (12 studies as of July 2012), positive reception among students and innovative teachers, and potential for modification and extension, it would seem mission accomplished.

An Introduction

Hi.  I teach Spanish Levels 1 and 2 using the TPRS (teaching proficiency through reading and storytelling) method, developed by Blaine Ray.  TPRS is the original “comprehensible input” methodology for teaching second languages.

The term “comprehensible input” means simply that what learners hear in their “target language” (TL: the language they are learning) should be 100% comprehensible to them.  The theory behind this method was (largely) developed by UCLA researcher Stephen Krashen.

Krashen’s theories suggest that learners really only need two things to acquire a language:

a) comprehensible input, and lots of it.  This input must also be interesting, so learners stay focused on it.

b) being confortable (relaxed, feeling secure and happy) in class. Krashen calls this the “lowered affective filter.”  Psychologists broadly agree that learning ideally takes place in a low-stress environment.

I am often asked questions about TPRS, and this blog will be my attempt to answer these questions as best I can, with reference to my and others’ experiences teaching languages using TPRS, and with reference to research.

I encourage readers to email questions to me at chris.stolz (attt)